Mapping Informal Transit Networks: “Imagine Not Knowing Where Any Bus in Your City Goes.”

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When traveling in the developing world, two things fascinate me: the informal transit networks that form the backbone of travel and commerce in many areas and the prevalence of cell phones. Last year, on an extended trip through Southeast Asia, my husband and I relied on word-of-mouth connections, sometimes facilitated by a quick call, to get from place to place. On one trip from Sihanoukville to Kep in Cambodia, we first took a tuk-tuk (an auto rickshaw) from an outlying beach to the center of town. The driver stopped at an unmarked stand, spoke with another man for a bit, and then said, “You can go now for $20 or wait for more people to come and it will be cheaper.” We’d spent a lot of time on hot, slow buses, so we hopped in the car. Along the way our driver stopped twice, once to retrieve what looked like a container of fish from a roadside stand and another time to take a piss.

As a traveler who wasn’t in rush, I didn’t mind our slow progress and appreciated how asking about transportation options opened the door to conversations that helped us learn more about the people and the communities where we visited. It’s a stark contrast to travel in Washington, D.C. or my new home Berlin, where public transit systems are generally automated and effective ways to get around. During my daily commute in D.C., I rarely spoke to anyone because thanks to an iPhone app, updated maps, and timetables, I knew when the bus would come and where it would take me.

Of course, not knowing where transit routes go is much less fascinating when you need to rely on them everyday. As you can read in this report focusing on three Indonesian cities, informal transportation networks can provide crucial support to city residents and reach communities and geographic areas that public transportation (where it does exist) do not. However, the beneficial aspects of these networks may be overshadowed by the problems created by a lack of information and regulation, including traffic congestion, accidents and lost time for passengers. The good news is that in several cities, including Nairobi, Mexico City, and Dhaka, efforts are underway to take advantage of the prevalence of cell phones as a way to collect and then disseminate data on informal transportation networks. Tomorrow representatives from several projects are meeting in Washington, D.C. at a workshop hosted by the World Bank, MIT and Columbia University.

In Nairobi, Digital Matatus, an initiative led by a team at MIT, University of Nairobi, Columbia University, and the consulting firm Groupshot, is using spatial data collected through a cell phone application to map the routes of matatus, the mini-buses that serve as the defacto city bus system. Today information on where the matatus run and whether there are transit disruptions is limited. Sarah Williams, the project director at MIT, says that Nairobi residents typically know where the routes go in their local community, but in travel beyond their neighborhood often rely on word-of-mouth connections. With data it collected through a cell phone application in the common General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) format, the Digital Matatus team has just finished a draft paper map of the matatu network. Williams hopes that when finalized, the matatu map will make it easier for citizens to navigate their city— and become the first informal transit network included in Google Maps.

“Imagine not knowing where any bus in your city goes,” Williams said. “Citizens are very excited to get this data.”

Publishing the data, of course, has implications not just for citizens, but also for the local government and the large and small matatu companies that now largely self-regulate.  According to Williams, the local agencies and at least some matatu collectives are supportive of the effort, but their engagement has been limited.

“I think they’ll get more engaged once the data is out there, and they have an idea of what it means for them,” said Williams.

In particular, the data could be very helpful for traffic planning purposes. Today, any attempt to model Nairobi’s terrible traffic doesn’t include the matatus— a major source of congestion since they stop wherever they want and often fail to obey traffic laws.

Moving forward, Digital Matatus will face a challenge familiar to many social innovators: ensuring that they can sustain and improve their work. Right now, the initiative can only produce a map that reflects a static point-in-time representation of the matatu network. The data like this can become out-of-date very quickly, particularly for a transportation system that changes dynamically, even on a day-to-day basis. In the future, the group hopes to develop a new application that will allow citizens to report changes and disruptions in real-time. The team is also working on finding a Nairobi-based organization to take ownership of the effort long-term.

“We want somebody from Nairobi to take on the data and maintain it,” said Williams. “This should be local knowledge.”

Digital Matatus is a great example of how technological advances (in this case, the prevalence of cell phones) can be harnessed to provide citizens with information that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them— hopefully giving them more control over their lives and schedules. It will be interesting to see how local governments and the operators of informal transportation, both in Nairobi and elsewhere, adapt to the availability of this data as it gets into the hands of citizens. Will city agencies use it to help tame traffic congestion or bring more formal regulation to these systems? Will the operators of informal transportation change their services and routes as better-informed citizens demand it?

There’s still much work to be done, but perhaps next time I’m in Cambodia, I’ll use my phone to map my route from Sihanoukville to Kep.